Middle Grade Monday: Raymie Nightingale

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There is a whole generation who will look back at two-time Newbery medalist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Kate DiCamillo the way my generation looks back at Gordon Korman, Judy Blume, Kit Pearson or Beverly Cleary. In fact, in an EW article DiCamillo names Cleary as a major influence for her latest novel, the superlative Raymie Nightingale. DiCamillo has defined American contemporary children’s literature in a way that none of her contemporaries can match.

Raymie Clarke’s father has run off with a dental hygienist. She is convinced if she does something spectacular- such as win the Little Miss Central Florida pageant- he will see her in the paper and come back. Raymie’s story  (abandoned by a parent) is not uncommon, but DiCamillo’s greatest gift is the ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. In her deft hands a baton, a jar of candy corn, even a swamp becomes something tinged with wonder.

My favourite Kate DiCamillo novel is Tiger Rising, which I think gets lost in the mega-bestselling, highly-decorated books such as Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Tiger Rising is a very simple narrative about poor children leading hard lives and stumbling upon something so unexpected it feels magical. DiCamillo revisits this idea in Raymie Nightingale. In Tiger Rising, the unexpected is an honest-to-goodness tiger in the woods. In Raymie Nightingale, it is friendship.

Raymie’s new friends, prickly Beverly and painfully optimistic Louisiana have burdens of their own. They are all desperate to be heard and understood, but have been made cautious by past disappointments. There is real sadness here, but as always in a DiCamillo book, hope triumphs over all. Of all the hurting characters in this book, I worried the most for Louisiana. Of all the girls, her situation is the most dire, and yet she is the most hopeful. But even when things looked very bad, I trust DiCamillo to not only point out, but buff up the silver lining.

If I could narrow down the one thing common to DiCamillo’s range of work  it would be her warmth. Whether she is writing fantasy, realistic contemporary, early readers or historical fiction (which  is technically what Raymie Nightingale, set in the 1970s, falls under) genuine warmth for her characters, for her readers, for people permeates the language.

Raymie Nightingale is available on April 12th from Candlewick Press.

 

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My Favourite Books of 2015

Every time I start a year in review list I am overwhelmed by the number of amazing books out there. I always intend to pick one or two books per category but it is much, much too difficult. What follows is a mere sliver of the fabulous books I read and loved this year, which is in turn just a chip on the tip of the iceberg of the fantastic offerings in contemporary children’s literature.

Picture Books 

There was a really great piece in Quill & Quire about The Golden Age of  Canadian Picture Books that we are currently enjoying. I could not agree more- in fact I would extend the Golden Age beyond our borders to include the US and the UK as well. Just look at this years’ riches!  This is Sadie marks yet another beautiful collaboration between Canadians Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad, celebrating the imagination of a child. Jon Agee, one of my favourite contemporary picture book makers, delivers a winner with the rhyming It’s Only Stanley, in which a clueless family disregards the astronomical ambitions of their dog. Sidewalk Flowers rightfully made many best of the year lists, taking home the GG for Children’s Illustration. Look out for Hannah E. Harrison, who’s sophomore effort  Bernice Gets Carried Away combines the warmth, humour, and emotional integrity of Kevin Henkes’ work. Seriously, how does she get her art to glow like that?! Christian Robinson had a stellar year with two great collaborations, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, a colourful ode to both urban living and grandparents, and Mac Barnett’s tender ghost-meets-girl story, Leo: A Ghost Story.

Early Readers & Chapter Books 

Mo Willems has another stellar year with The Story of Diva and Flea and I Really Like Slop. 2015 also saw the start of a new early chapter book series by Canadian Kallie George, with the charming Clover’s Luck in January and the equally magical The Enchanted Egg  in November. Non-fiction is at its funniest with the Disgusting Critters series, which added The Spider to the already wonderfully gross line-up of The Fly, The Rat, The Slug and Head Lice. Soon to come? The Toad!

Middle Grade

I read a lot of top notch middle grade fiction this year. The wintry, emotional Waiting for Unicorns inspired me to get back into blogging after a hiatus.  The Penderwicks in Spring proves that some series get even better with time, and this fifth book might be my favourite installment thus far. Goodbye Stranger remains not only the book I wish I had written, but the book I think every twelve year old (and adult who lives or works with twelve year olds) should read. George proves that books that fill a necessary void (in this case, narratives starring trans children) can also be beautifully written. Major props to author Alex Gino for this sensitive, accessible novel.

Look out for stars on the rise Victoria Jamieson, who’s Roller Girl ran away with my heart and should be on the TBR pile of all Raina Telgemeier’s zillions of fans. Ursula Vernon’s confident, fraction-obsessed Harriet Hamsterbone, the first in the delightful Hamster Princess series, is guaranteed to give readers a serious case of The Giggles. Circus Mirandus transported me right back to being 10 and discovering fantasy books for the first time and Monstrous was the Frankenstein/fairy-tale mash-up I didn’t even know I wanted.

 

Teen 

Sarah Dessen proves that she is indeed worthy of the title Patron Saint of YA with her thought-provoking, nuanced and ultimately redemptive Saint Anything. All I want for Christmas is some well-deserved Printz recognition for my girl Sarah! Longtime fans of Dessen will devour newcomer Emily Adrian’s Like It Never Happened, which first caught my attention because of the high school drama club setting and won my heart with it’s honest portrayal of contemporary issues. Susan Juby, another YA pioneer, was in top form with the unforgettable The Truth Commission, serving up a devastating family drama with her trademark wit and style. Fans of Juby will also love the mad-cap, Veronica Mars-esque Trouble is a Friend of Mine, by debut Canadian author Stephanie Tromly, featuring a reluctant detective with a very dry sense of humour and a weird, mysterious boy with a tragic past who is a much-needed quirky alternative to your standard YA book boyfriend. Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap wins the award for most unique book I read this year, with it’s gorgeous prose and shifting narratives. File this one under surreal mystery. For those who prefer their teen books laced with magic realism, The Accident Season provided the same kind of breathless, beautiful read as mega-bestseller We Were Liars. The series I should have read earlier but am still thankful I got around to reading is the lush, epic Throne of Glass series by NYT Bestseller Sarah J Maas. I have a terrible habit of never reading past book 2 in series, but I could not get enough of Maas’ rich, dark world. You can bet I’ll be taking the most recent book (and Goodreads Choice Award Winner) Queen of Shadows with me on vacation…that is if I can wait that long.

Sarah Dessen Patron Saint of YA

 

What books stole your heart in 2015?

Middle Grade Monday: The Thing About Jellyfish

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Multiple people, including author Carrie Mac, Danielle at Bookish Notions and Michelle from Mabel’s Fables told me that this would be a book I would love. They were correct. This National Book Award nominated title falls under one of my favourite categories, Poignant Coming of Age Story, and is particularly adept at detailing not only the toll that grief can take on a tween, but how friendships can change and nobody knows how to hurt you more than your best friend.

A pastiche of memories, jellyfish facts, and current action, The Thing About About Jellyfish chronicles the life cycle of a friendship cut short by an accidental drowning. The death of a friend is always tragic. But what happens when that friendship died months before the accident? Suzy and Franny became fast friends the minute they met in the swimming pool when they were five. As the girls around them start to change, becoming obsessed with boys and clothing and turning into the meanest versions of themselves, Franny makes Suzy promise to send her a big message if she ever turns into those girls.

So what happens when your ex-best friend, current enemy, dies? Suzy does not know how to mourn Franny. It has been ages since they were anything even resembling friends, but the last memory she has of Franny is a sad one; Franny in tears as a result of the “big message” Suzy sent to her. Suzy is guilty, confused, and does not know what to do with herself. So she stops talking and becomes obsessed with jellyfish, concocting a theory that Franny was killed by a jellyfish sting and then setting out to prove it.

Through flashback, we see how Franny changes and the devastating effect it has on Suzy. The death of a child is always tragic, but this book is more about the death of a friendship rather than a person. The moments of greatest sadness and empathy for me were ones where Franny or Suzy were intentionally hurting each other. Lots of books talk about bullying but rare is the middle grade novel that goes into such excruciating detail about the cruelties soon to be former friends inflict on each other. There is no sting like the sting of betrayal, and Franny and Suzy are engaged in a cold war anyone who has been a twelve year old girl will recognize. Exclusionary tactics, whispering, cruel names, cold shoulders, public humiliation and the airing of private information are all weapons in the arsenal of warring tweens.

Suzy is an odd duck and she knows it. She feels behind her peers in terms of the traditional bench markers of adolescence yet feels superior in intelligence. She is lonely but can’t trust the friendly advances of misunderstood lab partner, Justin, a classic middle grade crush. Her interest in science reminded me a tad of Ellie from Jennifer Holm’s wonderful The Fourteen Goldfish. Very different narratives, but similar protagonists. I like these thoughtful, science-minded and goal-oriented heroines. Let this be something we see more of in middle grade fiction.

At times the piece-y format of the narrative felt a bit clunky and broke up the flow of the story, but overall I loved Ali Benjamin‘s insight into the mind of a growing, grieving tween. Suzy is a victim but she inflicts some pretty brutal blows of her own, which is a reality that is often ignored or omitted in fiction. Here is a complicated, crunchy and authentic character. I like how Benjamin makes strong choices in Suzy’s actions. Readers will want to wrap her into a hug at one moment, and then shake her at another. When Suzy is weird she is WEIRD, but she is also lovable and totally unforgettable.

The Thing About Jellyfish is available now in hardcover from Little, Brown and Company.

Middle Grade Monday: Harriet the Invincible

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If you don’t already know Ursula Vernon, you will soon. This author-illustrator is on the verge of making it big. The creator of the very funny Dragonbreath series as well as a few equally hilarious middle grade novels, Vernon’s new series Hamster Princess casts my new favourite rodent in a proposed series of fractured fairytales.

The gift of invincibility has made Harriet Hamsterbone extremely confident. Determined to make the most of her invincibility before a sleeping curse sets in she spends the first 12 years of her life adventuring and slaying monsters. Even when her invincibility wears off and she is as mortal as anyone else, her confidence and exuberance remains. How wonderful to have a heroine who deals with challenges, be they sleeping curses, ogrecats or arranged marriage, head on.

Vernon’s sense of humour shines. While Harriet is a great comedienne, reluctant-adventurer Prince Wilbur gets in a few zingers himself. Much of the humour exists in the dialogue, including a series of graphic asides with speech bubbles (i.e. “You must have missed someone. Are you sure you kissed all the newts?”), but there are some very funny illustrations, too.  The image of Harriet riding her beloved steed, a quail named Mumphrey, silhouetted against a grand landscape, still cracks me up.

Fairytales, be they traditional or reinterpreted or new stories in the classic tradition, are everywhere. Some of the best-selling book series (The Descendants; The Land of Stories) and most popular TV shows (Once Upon a Time) or films (Cinderella; Maleficent; Frozen) of the past few years are fairytale related. As a culture we cannot seem to get enough of them. Princesses in general seem to be forever being debated (Disney princesses vs warrior princesses; princesses in pink vs princesses in black). Harriet Hamsterbone is a welcome addition to the world of middle grade princesses; a confident, funny, and capable royal with a penchant for fractions and a desire to right wrongs.

Obvious readers include fans of the Babymouse, Lunch Lady, and Origami Yoda series, in addition to fairytale and princess devotees, but I am hard pressed to think of a kid who would not laugh out loud at Harriet’s adventures. With large font, frequent illustrations and a great premise this is an excellent choice for early chapter book readers, but it would also make a wonderful read-aloud, particularly in the classroom. Learn more about Harriet and Vernon’s other series here.

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible is published by Dial books, available now from Penguin Random House Canada. To get a sense of the illustrations and hilarious hi jinx, check out the trailer here:

Happiness is a Penderwicks Novel: The Penderwicks in Spring Review

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How can a book that is ultimately about an eleven year old’s belief that she is responsible for the death of those she has loved be so funny and charming? Such is the magic of The Penderwicks in Spring, the fourth in the truly classic and heartwarming Penderwicks series. We throw words like “modern classic” around a lot in children’s literature, but The Penderwicks are deserving of that classification. I used to comp these books to Little Women, but The Penderwicks has now evolved into the series that other books are comped to, though I have yet to find a truly worthy contender.

This book focuses on Batty, who is now eleven. She has recently discovered a hidden talent for singing and cannot wait to share it with her family on her birthday, which also happens to be when Rosalind returns from college and Jeffrey is visiting from Boston. Despite a large revolving cast, the characters are clear and the reader never feels overwhelmed. Birdsall’s gentle third person narration gives us wonderful insights into her characters, some which tug at the heartstrings and others that made me laugh out loud. Ben is evolving into a sweet, serious boy with a love of rocks and a dislike of Rosalind’s schmarmy boyfriend (“How could such a person as Oliver come from a state with so many great rocks? Would Ben have to rethink his devotion to Minnesota?”). Skye is as angry and complicated as ever, and we get a breathtaking look into the source of this pain, one that slays the reader and sends Batty into a devastating tailspin. It is hard to watch Batty suffer, and she weeps throughout a lot of this book, which meant I also wept. I finished the book a few hours ago and I still feel emotionally sensitive.

One of the aspects of Birdsall’s writing I find the most interesting is which moments she chooses to include in her family saga, and which happen off the page. One of the challenges of writing a series that takes place over seven years is that obviously you can’t include everything. But Birdsall tends to include quieter, everyday moments instead of big dramatic ones. We don’t see Rosalind go to college, for example, or experience the birth of Lydia. But we do spend time with Batty in the woods or Ben behind the bushes playing army. Perhaps most significantly in this novel, we don’t see the death of Hound but we do experience Batty’s profound and prolonged grief, which is perhaps the unexpected choice, but an extremely effective one.

There are few things in life I enjoy as much as a Penderwicks novel. I have written about them before here. I love the wild, warm chaos of the family, which now numbers up to eight with toddler Lydia, nine if you count Asimov the cat, which Batty certainly would. I love the descriptions of home and the traditions and details that make the Penderwicks as real to me as any living breathing person in my life. Take for example, how at age five (otherwise known as the age of reason) each Penderwick chooses their own special cake which is made for them lovingly by the rest of the family every year on their birthday. I love how emotionally resonant the books are, a literary equivalent of that tender person who wears her heart on her sleeve. So many books these days use snark, irony or flashy gimmicks to win over a presumedly jaded audience, but Birdsall proves that all you really need to engage a reader is emotional integrity.

Apparently there will be one more Penderwicks novel after this one. I would read about this family all the way to old age. The whole series thus far stands up to re-reading, for both kids and adults. While all of the novels are genuinely emotional, this one dips into the darkest territory so far, but it is a cleansing and satisfying experience. I am so happy to live in a world where there are Penderwicks books. 

The Penderwicks in Spring will be available March 24, 2015 from Random House Canada.

The Best Moments in Children’s Books, 2014

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There were some shining moments in the children’s book world in 2014. This year we encouraged children to practice their reading with cats, celebrated graphic novels, established a new YA award in Canada, and took a stand on diversity.

Mac Barnett’s TED talk

Barnett’s books are funny, clever, and sophisticated, but never at the expense of child appeal. It comes as no surprise that the author himself is an engaging ambassador for children’s literature. In his TED talk “Why a good book is a secret door,” he discusses the human aptitude for imagination and gives plenty of real-life examples from his days as a camp counselor to his work at the inventive writing & tutoring organization 826LA, and his own writing.

 

Berks ARL Book Buddies Program 

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I mean come on. Look at this picture! So cute I had to post it twice. This story of the Animal Rescue League of Berks County Book Buddies program went viral in February, due largely to this image of a little boy reading to a shelter cat posted on Reddit. Encouraging children to read AND comforting cats? I am in.

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

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This grassroots organization of diversity crusaders has come a long way. After BookCon announced an all-white, largely male line-up this spring, authors and readers took to the internet to make it known that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. To their credit, the organizers responded, and a panel entitled “The World Agrees: We Need Diverse Books” was added to the programming. Months later, after significant media coverage and successful crowd-funding campaigns,  WNDB is a full-fledged organization. Featuring grants, book lists, tips for bringing diversity into the classroom and an upcoming festival, it is safe to say that #WeNeedDiverseBooks is transitioning from a moment to a movement.

 

THIS ONE SUMMER wins the Governor General’s Award for Illustration

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In an insightful piece in The National Post this fall, Anna Fitzpatrick discusses the potential impact of Jillian Tamaki‘s GG win on the perception of comic arts. With the ever-growing popularity of graphic novels and memoirs for children (El Deafo, Sisters, Through the Woods and the upcoming Roller Girl), the ever-growing attendance at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, and a TCAF pop-up shop at the Toronto Public Library this month, it is hard to deny that graphic art in all it’s permutations is commanding more respect. This is fantastic news. Just think of the amazing crossover and genre-bending books there are to come!

 

The Amy Mathers Teen Book Award is Established

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Book-lover and CanLit advocate Amy Mathers began her marathon of books, reading her way across Canada one YA book at a time, in January 2014 hoping to raise enough money to fund a much-needed award for Canadian YA. At the TD Children’s Literature Award Gala in November it was announced that her dream would become a reality. The first Amy Mathers Teen Book Award will be awarded in 2015. This is great news for the vibrant and diverse range of YA books published by Canadians.  Follow Amy’s journey and peruse her book reviews on her website or connect with her on twitter.

Now doesn’t that make you feel good? Here’s to a great 2015! Happy holidays, friends!

Thank You for the Borderlands: RIP Zilpha Keatley Snyder

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Zilpha Keatley Snyder, 1927-2014

When I was a kid I got a box of books at a garage sale. I don’t remember how old I was. It was the summer, possibly between grades 3 and 4, or 4 and 5- but I do remember that box vividly. I discovered some of my favourite authors in that box: E. L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, and my favourite author of all time- Zilpha Keatley Snyder. At the time, Snyder was the wild card. None of my friends had heard of her. I took great pleasure in recommending The Stanley books, The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, and her fantasy series Below the Root to everyone I knew. I still read and love Snyder’s books. She is my greatest inspiration as a writer of children’s fiction.

What I love about Snyder’s books is that they deal so well with things that happen in between, in the borderlands between ages, genres, and perspective. Her characters were often somewhere between childhood and adolescence and she wrote in the spaces between genres. She was never just realistic, just fantasy, just historical. On her website, she even has a category of books called “Border Line Fantasy.” Now there is a writer ahead of her time. Sometimes the magic in Snyder’s books was real, sometimes it had a logical (non magical) explanation. Sometimes the ghosts were literal, other times they were imagined. With Snyder’s fiction I was never sure what kind of book I was about to read, but I knew that no matter what the subject matter or the ending, I would love it.

Many people have said and will say much more eloquent, specific things about Snyder and her work, like this lovely piece from PW, for instance. But I wanted to add my voice to the chorus of accolades because you don’t love an author the way you love one as a child. She is the kind of author I want to be. Every time I sit down to write a little part of me wonders if my work stands up to hers, if it would belong on the same shelf. So here is a list of some of my Snyder favourites:

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The Witches of Worm is about an ugly cat, adopted and loved by a girl who discovers that the cat may be possessed by a witch. This is a book that can be enjoyed equally by cat lovers and cat haters, a rare feat of fiction indeed. The story and some very creepy spot illustrations make it an ideal Halloween read. I have a memory of staying up way to late to finish this in bed and scaring myself silly. And I am firmly on the cat lover end of the spectrum.

The Egypt Game is about a group of children who create an elaborate fort and game based on the myths of Ancient Egypt, an innocent game taking place in the shadow of a recent string of child murders. This is a masterful book in terms of plot, atmosphere, and relationships, likely why it was a Newbury honour book. But it also had tons of detail about Ancient Egypt, which I couldn’t get enough of at the time. I desperately wanted to play my own version of the Egypt Game.

The Changeling is about two girls who meet in the woods between their houses and become friends. Martha, shy and conservative, and Ivy, wild, imaginative, and fearless, who claims to be a changeling child left by the fairies with her family, constantly in trouble with the law. Sigh. Doesn’t every twelve year old girl want a friend like Ivy?

Below the Root is the first book in The Green Sky fantasy series that takes place on a planet entirely covered by trees. I was not an avid fantasy reader but I could not get enough of this book. At the time it was one of the most beautiful, saddest stories I had read. I remember begging (badgering might be more accurate) the children’s librarian at the Woodstock Public Library to order it in because it wasn’t in our system.

The Stanley Family series, beginning with The Headless Cupid, is essentially a loose collection of stories about a blended family learning to get along and live together, with a good dose of mystery and suspense thrown in. These bear the hallmark of 1970s-1980s realistic children’s fiction that was issues driven, made extremely popular by Judy Blume. I wanted very badly to be part of the Stanley family’s antics.

Libby on Wednesday is about a girl who lives in an old mansion (this is a common theme in Snyder’s books) and has to put up with a group of eccentric writers who live and work there. This sounded like heaven to me and I couldn’t understand Libby’s reluctance to join their writer’s group. Despite this difference of opinion, I quite liked Libby and I loved this book. Also, as I learned as an adult, her depiction of writers’ workshops is spot on.

Season of Ponies is about a girl who meets a boy who lives with a herd of magical ponies. This sounds an awful lot like a premise for many of those glittery, sparkly early chapter books “for girls” about ponies, but the story is much deeper, earthier, and has a touch of The Secret Garden to it. Even I, avowedly not a horsey person, wanted to find Ponyboy and his horses.

The Velvet Room is about a girl who discovers a tunnel to a secret abandoned mansion full of turrets, plush window seats, and libraries. This place could have been dreamed up by Anne Shirley. Basically everything I ever wanted to find when I was nine years old.

The Truth About Stone Hollow is essentially a friendship story disguised as a ghost story, but it excels on both counts. Plus adding “The Truth” to any title pretty much guaranteed that I would read it. I loved (and still love) an implied lie. Who doesn’t want to find out the truth about things?

I’m not sad that Snyder has died because she had a long life and a wonderful career. What I hope is that people will stumble across eulogies and posts like this and feel inspired to pick up one of her books. You won’t regret it; she was a master.